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Get a letter from your great-great (etc) Grandpa: New, online MSU Civil War archive

This story includes historically racist language that some readers may find offensive.

We're in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

So your great uncle, the war re-enactor, is probably having the time of his life.

But for those who have trouble sitting through all nine episodes of the Ken Burns “Civil War” documentary, now there’s something for us, a new online archive is bringing Michigan’s Civil War letters into the Google Age.

The letters have romance, tragedy, and reasons why you should never sneak up on a woman who sleeps with a hatchet under her pillow. 

Even when it's for the sake of history, there’s something weird about reading someone else's love letters.

And by weird I mean awesome.

Michigan State University archivist Ed Busch likes to show people a pack of “steamy” letters – at least, what passed as steam in the 1860’s.

“My darling Emma…remember what I said about kissing red cheeks? It felt as good as it could be…SEND THE PICTURE!”

Tame as it is, Busch and I are not above some giggling.

Maybe it’s because we’re sitting in a dead silent basement archive, under buzzing fluorescent lights, among rows and rows of green metal shelves crammed with documents – exactly what you’d picture for an academic archive.

But MSU’ has acquired several collections of Civil War letters passed down from Michigan families, and Busch always thought it was a shame that they mostly just sat in this basement.

So he, and a handful of loyal grad students, and some very patient volunteers, have transcribed (by hand!) 3,000 letters and documents.

They’ve put them online with a fast, easy-to-use search engine. It’s catnip for historians, teachers and of course, genealogists.  

"You get the sense of a connectedness, and you get a sense of personal history when you read the letters,” said Diane Tichenor of Macomb, Illinois. She is one of those amateur family historians.

She used the MSU archive to track down letters from her first cousin four times removed, a Union soldier with the awesome name of Irenus McGowan.

“What they had to do just to exist, and how it felt to a real human being. It's just an amazing thing," says Tichenor.

She says her cousin’s letters detail the endless marching, the near-starvation and the destruction of orchards and farms that were part of McGowan’s daily life.

That's what interesting about this collection- these aren't famous generals or major players who knew their letters might be saved and read after the war.

It's just people from Michigan, with their loopy handwriting, misspellings, or even splatters of blood on their paper.

One of the letters is from Deb Payn.  Her husband's at war, and she's staying in Missouri - a border state where she's constantly trying to protect herself from robbery or rape.

Payn writes: “What little property we had has been destroyed...I go to bed at night but not without some deadly weapon by my bed. I keep a hatchet and two revolvers that [my husband] has sent me. One night I was awakened by someone saying, 'Are you asleep?" I gave the alarm, but when folks got to my room there was no one to be found.”

Then there are the letters that talk about slavery and race. They’re prickly to read, of course. But especially when they’re people who could be related to say, your neighbors down the street, - or heck, it could be your great-great-great-granddad.

Like Thomas Davis, a Union soldier writing from Tennessee: “Dear Sister, I do not approve of sending Negroes north into the free states. And I do not think there will be much of it done: I would almost give my existence to see every N**** removed from the face of the American Continent.”

Through these letters, you can follow these people for months or even years of their lives.

For Ed Busch, the archivist, that’s what gets him hooked. He has to know what happens to these people. Like the love letter guy from the beginning of this story – the one who wrote some 30 steamy letters to Emma?

They don’t have a happy ending.

Busch reads aloud: “Dear friend Emma, [always a bad sign]

"I know you are good girl, far too good for me..."

I’m frankly a little miffed for poor Emma! I ask Busch, what the heck happened? This guy writes her 30 gooey letters and then drops her out of the blue?

"Well, I had to do some more research, because I had to know what happened!” Busch says. “Turns out, he met someone in Tennessee where he was stationed."

Poor Emma went on to die in her early 40's. While her ex goes on to be a very successful politician.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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